Review: For the Life of the World

for the life of the world

For the Life of the WorldMiroslav Volf and Matthew Croasmun. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019.

Summary: Contends that for theology to make a difference it must address what it means for human beings to flourish in the world “in light of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ.”

Miroslav Volf grew up in Tito’s Yugoslavia. Matthew Croasmun cut his teeth in ministry in planting a church. For both, a lived theology was vital, and remains so in their current work with the Yale Center for Faith and Culture. Their contention in this book is that “the purpose of theology is to discern, articulate, and commend visions of flourishing life in light of God’s self revelation in Jesus Christ” (p. 11). They argue for an emphasis of the flourishing life as a fundamental human quest. In so doing they propose a tri-partite definition of the flourishing life: life led well (agential), life going well (circumstantial), and life feeling as it should (affective). Furthermore, they argue that this is a quest that has been neglected in the universities, in the church, and in the theological world.

Addressing this last, they make the case that theology, at least as it is done in the West, is in a state of crisis. It is facing a shrinking job market and a shrinking audience. Most theological books mainly are read by other theologians, and purchased by seminary libraries. It is also in crisis because of how it has conceived of itself, either as a “science” engaged in description (e.g.. religious studies) or as advocacy (either for historic orthodoxy or progressive causes) rather than engaged in “descriptive work in service of a normative vision of human flourishing” (p. 56).

But why human flourishing? Isn’t theology about God, or about God’s redemptive work in Christ? The authors do not dismiss these ideas but show how a theology of human flourishing encompasses these concerns. Yes, theology is about a God who created a world as his home where his creatures flourish, and who is working to consummate that purpose even though the world has been marred by sin and oppression. Redemption is vital in this process not as an end, but rather because it crucially begins the process that leads to the consummation of that process of God restoring a world where humanity flourishes in God’s home.

One of the challenges that a theology for the life of the world faces is that of universality. It is a vision for not only individuals but for the world. The authors admit this and that such a vision will be contest by other visions. However, they argue the perspective inherent in the Christian vision allows for peaceful coexistence, collaboration, and learning from those who advocate other visions. Finally, they argue for room for a variety of particularities, for a kind of bounded improvisation within a normative vision.

Perhaps the richest part of this work was a chapter co-written with Justin Crisp on the life of the theologian, arguing for a fundamental alignment between thought and life. This means the life of a pilgrim marked by prolepsis, a striving toward a goal not yet fully realized in one’s life, and ecstasis in the sense that the life they lead is in and through another, Christ, rather than belonging to them. The example of Luther is commended in a life lived in the tension of a theology of glory and a theology of the cross. The chapter concludes in naming the intellectual dispositions of a theologian: a love of knowledge, God, and the world; a love for our interlocutors; courage; gratitude and humility; and firmness–with a soft touch.

The authors conclude with their own vision of a flourishing life–not a full-fledged theology–but the contours one might look for. They focus on Paul’s statement about the kingdom in Romans 14:17: For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (NRSV). Harking back to their tripartite definition of human flourishing, they propose that righteousness (or love) characterizes the life well led; peace characterizes the life going well; and joy characterizes the life feeling as it should. This is the content of the life lived in an already/not yet kingdom–a life that calls and allows for improvisation. It is a life that affirms the created goodness of our life in the flesh, even while we long for the consummation of the resurrection and the new creation.

The authors address a concern I’ve long had that theology is for the world, and not meant to be confined to seminaries. I review many theological books that I hope people outside the seminary world will read. I believe good theology books help God’s people flourish in his world, not because they contain a highfalutin version of “how to have your best life now” but because we desperately need to understand the story, the reality in which we live. Sadly, some, not all, of it is written primarily for other academics, even though the ideas are often important for the church and the world. I applaud the authors for naming this challenge and describing the attributes of those who pursue the noble work of doing theology “for the life of the world.”

One concern I have about this work is that it doesn’t address the vital need for a theology for the life of the world to be done by the theologians of the world. The discussion of the well-lived life is grounded in Western philosophy and has an individualistic feel even though the authors draw communal and societal implications. It would be intriguing to explore what Asian, African, Latino, and other theologians of color might contribute to an articulation of the contours of a theology of human flourishing.

The authors also talk about the tremendous cost of theological education in terms of graduate education and faculty salaries, wondering if it is worth it. The answer seems to be, “yes,” if done for the world. But I wonder if this is possible given the structural factors that isolate the seminary both from the church and the rest of the academic world. Volf and Croasmun’s work at Yale bridges a divide between seminary and academy. A growing movement advocating the importance of “pastor theologians” bridges the seminary-church divide. But how might the three come together to do what might be called “public theology” on the order of what figures like Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr engaged in during the 1950’s?

The vision of flourishing life in God’s home has the potential to take theology out of esoteric discussions to talk about ordinary life in the world–work, family, society, the physical environment and its care, concerns for justice, political life. It allows Christians to engage in public discussions about shared concerns for flourishing, and the distinctive contribution of that faith. Most of all, this work offers a searching challenge to all engaged in “academic theology” to consider toward what end they are working, and whether in the end their work addresses the fundamental human quest.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: New Creation

New Creation

New CreationRodney Clapp. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018.

Summary: An exploration of how the end of the Christian story, or eschatology, ought shape the life of the church in this time between the comings of Christ.

“We are storied creatures, and everything happens because we lean toward endings. These endings are the goals, the pursuits, the destinies, the termination points that mark and animate our lives. Without endings we could never begin anything. We would lack plots and our lives would be without purpose, devoid of meaning” (p. 1).

This statement from the Introduction captured my attention. I’ve long felt that the Christian faith is not merely beliefs to embrace, or precepts to practice, but a story in which we find ourselves. It has seemed to me that one of the great needs of the church, and individuals within her, to understand is the story within which we live. Often, I believe that we are living in other stories, perhaps familial, or cultural, rather than the story of the kingdom.

Rodney Clapp begins this work with a summary of our story of creation, fall, the mission of Israel, the coming of the kingdom in the person of Jesus, and the kingdom yet to come. He crucially observes that the idea of kingdom implies a politics for the church–not that we so much have a politics, but that we are a politics as the people of God.

Clapp then explores a number of topics in light of “the end of the story.” He begins with a discussion of heaven, and the Christian teaching of our ultimate destiny as resurrected people caring for the new creation with heaven as a way station. He discusses our identity as a royal priesthood, that are also the temple of the living God. Every other allegiance is secondary, and releases us to identify with the powerless, those on the margins. The day will come when the lion will lay down with the lamb when the rule of the Prince of Peace is established. For now we follow Jesus by turning from violence to bear the cross of peace, even while we engage in warfare, not with people, but with the Principalities and Powers, the structures of life that oppress. We name them and refuse them our allegiance.

He moves on to prayer, reflecting on the Lord’s prayer, how prayer is the watchful waiting of the pilgrim, and how the lament and theodicies of scripture give us language to face the disjunct between our broken world and the new creation we await. He considers what our hope for the new creation means for our care for the present creation, one whose creatures God knows and provides for. He even includes a poem on “Lessons in Prayer, from a Dog,” inspired by his own dog, Merle. For many, the most interesting will be his discussion of sex in the eschaton. He proposes, in the language of the Song of Solomon, that love is indeed stronger than death, and that although the scriptures are not definitive on this, there is reason to hope for sex in the new creation, even if there is no marriage or giving in marriage. If we are resurrected bodies, he proposes that our genitalia will not be mere ornamentation!

Finally, Clapp explores the question of the last judgment, offering an interesting discussion in which he argues against eternal conscious torment as inconsistent with God’s reconciling work through the cross of Christ. He explores both the idea of conditional mortality, that the unrepentant simply cease to exist, fading to “nothingness,” and hopeful universalism, in which, after suffering judgment that purifies and redeems, all will be saved. Clapp does not commit to either of these positions, which he shows have been embraced by various parts of the church, and argues that ours is not to judge but to proclaim the good news of the kingdom. He concludes that our view of eschatology enables us to deal with the tragedies and ironies of our current existence and to live with both calmness and joy in the present time.

The book includes appendices in reading the Bible for the first time, and also some suggestions for reading Karl Barth, whose influences are evident through the book. What is so good about this book is how it deals with the misapprehensions so many have about the last things. For many, a destiny of only being ethereal spirits strumming harps is far less attractive than embodied, and perhaps sexual, creatures working in the new creation. He speaks of an end of the story that answers to our deepest longings for peace and healing the rifts within humanity and the rest of creation. His account gives us hope to face the hardships of life, and a call to a higher allegiance that transcends all earthly political engagements. Twice during the book, he makes this assertion:

“If the Republicans are the last ones caring for the unborn, the Christian will be among them. If the Greens are the last fighting for a caring stewardship of creation, the Christian will be among them. If the Democratic Socialists are the last ones fighting for the poor and the working class, the Christian will be among them. If Black Lives Matter are the last ones believing that black lives do matter, the Christians will be among them. If the relief agencies are the last ones caring for refugees, the Christian will be among them. If the pacifist anarchists are the last ones standing for peaceable alternatives to war, the Christian will be among them” (pp 45, 113).

If nothing else, Clapp is an equal opportunity offender! Readers will doubtless find something to take issue with in this brief and forthright account. Some might disagree with Clapp’s take on the last judgement. But if he provokes us to think about what the end of our story is as the people of the kingdom, in all its glory, and challenges us to shape our lives, in these tumultuous times, by this story rather than other cultural stories, then this book will have accomplished its purpose.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Intersectional Theology

intersectional theology

Intersectional Theology: An Introductory GuideGrace Ji-Sun Kim and Susan M. Shaw. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2018.

Summary: An introduction to the application of intersectional analysis to theology, understanding how identities and social locations within systems of power might both challenge and shape our theological understanding and praxis.

I would like to begin by thanking one of the authors (Grace Ji-Sun Kim) for affording me the opportunity to review this book. Typically, white, cisgendered heterosexual males, who are aging boomers, who self-identify as evangelical tend not to embrace conversations about intersectionality. I appreciate the trust extended to be included in that conversation!

Actually, my self-description illustrates the basic idea of intersectionality. There are multiple axes that make up who I am–age, race, gender and sexual identity, physical abilities or disabilities, religious identifications, family background, marital status, education, income and social class. In my case, these axes have afforded “an invisible package of unearned assets” that some would call “privilege.” I’ve only ever been stopped by a police officer for violating speed laws, and invariably treated with courtesy. I’ve never had difficulty securing credit or a loan. I’ve never been mocked or excluded because of my sexual orientation or marital status. In one church, I had to accept a male co-teacher even though my first choice was a woman who was better qualified. I’ve worked in an organization whose funding model works best for white men, less so for women and persons of color. Especially so for those who may be women and persons of color. It has shaped how I read the Bible. For example, it has not been until relatively recently that I fully grasped that both the people of Israel and the early Christians were subject peoples to imperial powers for much of their history and that much of scripture is God’s word to enslaved or subject peoples, including prophecies against the unjust use of power by those who do not fear God.

Intersectionality as an idea arose out black feminism as black women understood that it was not enough to understand the differentials of power and the effects of oppression that came from being a black, or being a woman. These identities come together to shape people and institutions and the power relations between them. Also, as an analysis that arises on the receiving end of unjust uses of power, it is constantly connecting theory and praxis–reflection and action to pursue justice.

In this work, subtitled “An Introductory Guide,” the authors apply this approach to doing theology. They contend that much of the church’s theological scholarship has been done by white, male, Euro-Americans (people like me!) and reflects our social location. Furthermore, some of the theological work that has been done in resistance to this culturally dominant group, like liberation theology, or feminist theology, often is along a single axis of ethnicity, or gender, and is not cognizant of the multiple ways different aspects of identity are shaped by power relations.

The authors introduce us to this approach first by giving some of the history that I touched on above of the development of intersectional analysis. They then illustrate intersectionality as it relates to theological ideas with their own narratives. Grace Ji-Sun Kim describes her experiences as a Korean-American immigrant, a woman, heterosexual, being raised in both a Korean Presybterian context and American schools. Susan M. Shaw describes growing up in a Southern Baptist tradition, wanting to engage in ministry but being barred, first because she is a woman, and then even more, as she comes to terms with her lesbian orientation, leading her to become a member of the United Church of Christ.

The third chapter then describes what it means to do intersectional theology. One of the key proposals here is that intersectional theology is a “theology of indeterminacy” rather than one that articulates absolute truth claims. Practicing intersectional theology involves “bracketing” our own understanding to enter into the logic of others’ frameworks. It recognizes that theological work is done in a context and asks how our own interpretive community has influenced our interpretations. It forces one to examine whether one is using a single axis of one’s identity and muting others. Oriented toward justice, intersectional theology looks at how a theology either supports or challenges inequities.

Chapter four explores reading the Bible intersectionally, and this I found quite helpful. They use the example of the book of Ruth, looking at the different identities of Ruth, the widowed Moabite woman immigrant, Naomi, the bereft Jewish mother unable of her own to assert her inheritance rights with no male offspring, and Boaz, the male, Jewish landowner. They note for example, that we think of Galatians 3:28 as separate, rather than intersecting identities (e.g.. male, Gentile, and slave).

Chapter five turns to the practice of intersectionality, both in terms of the pursuit of justice, and fostering the intersectional church. They advocate for a church that is fully intersectional and inclusive along all the axes of identity discussed including age, race, sexual identity and orientation, economic status and more.

There is much here that I appreciate. First is the recognition that we do not do our theological work in a vacuum but that it may well reflect one’s various axes of identity. Listening to those who are reading scripture who are not white, not male, not Western has opened my eyes to things in the biblical text to which I’ve been oblivious because of my own social location. Recognizing the complexity of the intersections of race, gender, orientation, and other aspects of our identity and how the mix reflects our experience of power and how we hear scripture, challenges the assumptions I make and my awareness of who “we” are together as the global body of Christ. Learning to “bracket” and incarnationally enter into the lived experience and theological frameworks of others seems crucial to developing the capacity to move beyond our identities to reflect what it means truly to be the body of Christ. The questions for reflection at the end of each chapter are among the most probing and thought-provoking I’ve seen, going far beyond the obligatory “reflection questions” I find in many books.

At the same time, I do find myself with some questions as I consider this proposal. One has to do with the authors’ comments about Karl Barth (p. 14). They are critical of Barth’s focus on the Bible alone and de-valuing context and social location. Yet it seems that it is precisely Barth’s understanding of the Bible that enables him to forcefully challenge and resist the social location of the Third Reich and the Christian nationalism of the German church in the formulation of the Declaration of Barmen, even though this was the context and social location out of which he theologized. Do we not read, and keep reading the Bible, and do so with the whole church, so that the Word of God might challenge the idolatries and injustices in all our social locations and contexts, be they places of power, or places of the oppressed?

I also wrestle with the language of a “theology of indeterminacy” which sounds like another way of speaking of the “pervasive interpretive pluralism” that Christian Smith has observed in his critique of “biblicist” Protestant Christianity. At times, intersectionality seems to hold out hope for different communities recognizing more truly the manifold revelation of God in Christ, and reflecting that in the mosaic of identities reconciled in Christ. Yet, the question arises of what we do when we have opposing interpretations, even when interpreters from different communities have bracketed, carefully listened, and still at the end of the day differ. What if we have examined our context and social location and believe our interpretations are not simply a function of our interpretive community?  Still, it does seem that the sensitivity of intersectionality to justice means that it eschews moves that assimilate others into one’s own theological constructions or moving from the oppressed to the oppressor.

You can see from the length of this review that I found this a thought-provoking work. While I cannot embrace every conclusion or praxis advanced in this work, it does make me both more reflective about how my own context and various aspects of my identity shape how I read scripture and do theology. It made me want to listen more to voices outside my own social context. This is no small thing!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.



Review: Beauty, Order, and Mystery

Note: Perhaps I should prepare my readers for the reviews I will be posting today and tomorrow. The writers of the book I am reviewing today endorse what they would describe as the church’s historic consensus about human sexuality while attempting to deal thoughtfully and sensitively with contemporary issues in this contentious space. Tomorrow, I will be reviewing a book on intersectional theology, in which the co-authors support an “open and affirming” stance with regard to LGBTQ persons. I will understand if some of my readers decide to opt out of one or both, perhaps for good reasons because even summaries of the books and discussion of them may not feel “safe” given the reader’s personal experience. There is much I found in each book that I appreciated, and matters about which I had questions, or even disagreements. I suspect you will as well, and we may differ in our appreciations, questions, and disagreements. At least this blog won’t be one more “echo chamber.”

beauty, order, and mystery

Beauty, Order, and MysteryGerald Hiestand & Todd Wilson, editors. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: A collection of papers given at the 2016 Center for Pastor Theologians conference exploring various aspects and contemporary issues concerning human sexuality from the perspective of the church’s historic consensus.

The editors of this work begin by advancing the idea of “mere sexuality” which they hold to be the church’s historic consensus on the meaning and appropriate expression of human sexuality. They argue that this has been a time of sweeping change with the upholding of marriage equality and transgender rights, as well as the predominance of sexual intimacy outside of marriage, the ease of divorce, and the separation of sexual intimacy and procreation because of birth control. Some see this as sweeping away that consensus, others as evidence that there never really was one. The attempt of the contributors of this book is to articulate in fresh terms the church’s historic understanding of human sexuality, not only addressing contemporary questions but seeking to articulate a vision of the beauty of human sexuality, how a proper ordering of sexual love leads to human flourishing, and the meaning that underlies it for creatures made in the image of the triune God and the incarnate Son who calls the church his Bride.

There were several essays that I found especially helpful in articulating this vision. Beth Felker Jones writes about the goodness of embodied gender and sexuality, and challenges “cultural assumptions about femininity and masculinity [that] may interfere with Christian discipleship.” Wesley Hill, a celibate, gay, Anglican theologian, sensitively engages the work of Eugene Rogers and Robert Song, who both are “affirming” theologians. He carefully discusses Matthew 19:1-9 arguing that Jesus not only reaffirms the creation order of male and female marriage, but in his teaching about divorce, announces the redemption of this order. At the same time, he challenges readers to consider how LGBTQ persons may be gifts to the church rather than problems to be solved, people to be loved and wanted for who they are.

Joel Willitts offers what I found to be a courageous and vulnerable account of what it was like for him to struggle with a history of sexual abuse, pornography use, struggles with intimacy and the futility of the quick fixes often dispensed in the name of pastoral care. He shares, in an email with a woman struggling with porn, a woman abused from age 6 who became pregnant at age 12:

“…if you ever do come to the point that you can give up porn, it will not be because of contempt or fear or guilt or shame or self-discipline. If you ever give up porn it will be because you have come to know God’s kindness at the deepest level of your heart. Start being kind to yourself now because that is exactly how God will treat you through eternity. No sense waiting until then:)!”

Matthew Mason draws upon 1 Corinthians 15 and the work of Oliver O’Donovan to address the resurrection hope as it applies to those dealing with transgender identity and gender dysphoria. Amy Peeler explores the revelation of God’s glory in male and female worshiping and prophesying together as God intends in 1 Corinthians 11. Matthew Levering, a Catholic scholar, introduces us to Thomas Aquinas and the ordering of our sexuality that allows for human flourishing. Daniel J. Brendsel, drawing on the work of Charles Taylor, explores “selfie” culture and its implications for the culture’s understanding of sexuality. All these essays, I found quite helpful and reflected theological engagement and imagination.

The one essay I struggled most with was Denny Burk’s on “The Transgender Test.” After invoking “biblical inspiration and authority” I felt he, without exegesis or an engagement with what is known about gender dysphoria, equates “biological sex and gender identity.” My assumption is that he defines biological sex in terms of genitalia. He does not acknowledge the cases where this is ambiguous, and dismisses neurobiology and gender identity (what he calls “brain-sex theory”). While neural pathways are less visible than genitalia, they are no less biological. Instead, we are told that the Bible gives us all we need for life and godliness, that we need to accept that we were made male or female, and that is that. I thought this essay was not up to the level of the others, and question how helpful the “pastoral theology” found here will be to transgendered individuals.

On the other hand, I found Richard Mouw’s closing reflections on the conference filled with wise counsel for the church, from how he counselled a lesbian student as a seminary president, to our needs to think with the global church on these issues. This raises a criticism I would have of this collection of essays. As far as I can tell, these are all by white, North Americans (twelve men, one of who identifies as gay, and two women,). There are no voices of people of color, or theologians from outside North America. I hope that the Center for Pastor Theologians will heed Mouw in composing future conference speaker slates (an issue at many Christian conferences).

Nevertheless, I found much fresh and careful thinking in this work. Nowhere was this more typified that the closing essay on “What Makes Sex Beautiful?” Matt O’Reilly explores the beautiful bookends of the Bible in Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 21-22 and how both occur in a garden, have imagery of a temple where God dwells and involve a wedding. He writes:

“My argument is that sex derives its beauty from the marriage relationship, which is designed by God to uniquely embody and magnify his creative and redemptive love. When sex is celebrated in the context of that relationship and as its consummative act, it magnifies the beauty of the triune God.”

It seems to me that this touches on the heart of the discussion. All of our sexual ethics flow from the meaning of our sexuality, and here, as elsewhere, Christians cannot answer this apart from the loving triune God and the incarnate Christ, the Bridegroom who will come for his spotless bride.

Review: A Peculiar Orthodoxy

a peculiar orthodoxy

A Peculiar OrthodoxyJeremy S. Begbie. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018.

Summary: A collection of essays exploring the intersection of theology and the arts.

In recent years there has been an upsurge of conversation relating theology and the arts. One of the leading lights in this conversation is Jeremy S. Begbie, both a trained theologian, and gifted pianist. This work is a collection of essays given as academic presentations, and thus, the reader will encounter some overlap of ideas and themes, but also a rich appreciation of both art and orthodox theology.

Begbie begins with Bach and the subject of beauty. Beauty as one of the transcendentals is often related back to Platonic thought, but Begbie argues for an understanding of beauty in light of the Trinitarian God and then uses Bach’s Goldberg Variations to explore how Bach’s religious beliefs are evident in his music. A companion essay follows dealing with the resistance to an idea of beauty that often reduces to sentimentality, and doesn’t deal with the existence of ugliness, evil, suffering and pain in life. Begbie argues that the Triduum of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter reveals a perspective in which God enters into human suffering fully and works redemptively. This is a beauty that does not hide from or hide evil, but works restoratively.

A fascinating essay follows, “Faithful Feelings,” that explores the connection between music and emotion and suggests that music may concentrate, indeed purify emotion. Likewise in worship, our emotional lives are concentrated and purifies in the worship of the Triune God, and that the use of music in worship ought to be shaped by a congruency between music, and the theological truth being expressed.

Both the fourth and seventh essays address music and natural theology using the work of David Brown who has written extensively on classical music and belief. Begbie would contend for the specificity of orthodoxy in these discussions rather than the more inclusive theism of Brown. Begbie argues that our thinking about the arts must be shaped by a trinitarian, indeed Christ-centered understanding.

Between these essays are two focused on particular works, one of music, one written. The musical work is Edward Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius, in which Begbie explore the ambivalence in John Henry Newman’s portrayal of purgatory in the words, carried over into the musical setting of these by Elgar–a movement between confidence and anxiety. This is followed by an analysis of George Herbert’s poem, “Ephes. 4.30”, and the link Herbert portrays here between the arts and the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps the essay I found most fascinating was the eighth, exploring the ideas of music, space, and freedom. He proposes that often we have difficulties with questions of the one and the many, or the intersection of divine and human freedom because of perceiving these in terms of either visual or material space. He observes that music opens up another way of conceiving of these in which multiple tones may occupy the same aural space simultaneously, with none being cancelled out, and if anything, producing a richer and more interesting sound than a single tone, whether harmonious or dissonant.

The collection concludes with Begbie’s thoughts on the contribution of Reformed theology to the arts. His discussion of Reformed perspectives on “beauty” and “sacrament” help sharpen the creature, Creator distinction, and clarify the fuzziness with which these ideas are often thrown around in art and theology discussions. He addresses the Reformed commitment to the word as both significant in God’s self-communication, and yet also complemented by other media that communicate realities for which words alone are inadequate.

Reflecting Begbie’s musical training, the essays tend to focus more on musical than other forms of art. As a choral singer and lay theologian, I did not mind this. His thoughts about beauty and sentiment reminded me of singing the second movement of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms in which the pastoral beauty of Psalm 23 is juxtaposed with Psalm 2 and the dissonant raging of the nations against God. The evocative power of music and the alignment of music and words to express truth in worship was powerfully apparent when we performed Ola Gjeilo’s Dark Night of the Soul that seems to capture the stillness of the soul facing the dark, and the wonder of the sheer grace of God that one finds in this setting of St. John of the Cross’s meditation. There is the wonder (when it happens) of many voices singing different parts coming together as a single entity–where the singing of individuals didn’t cancel out each other but create something more than our separate voices.

Begbie’s essays made me reflect on these experiences and gave theological content to them. The essays are written at an academic level, for academic conferences, but reward careful reading with insight. This is a great service for artists, who seek not merely technical proficiency, but to write, or sing, or play, or dance, or act, or paint with an authenticity that reflects our deepest loves, and for the Christian, the connection of our work with the Creator’s story.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own

Review: The Gospel in Dorothy Sayers


The Gospel in Dorothy L. SayersDorothy L. Sayers with an Appreciation by C. S. Lewis, edited by Carole Vanderhoof. Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2018.

Summary: An anthology of Sayers’ work organized by theological topics, drawing on her detective fiction, plays, and essays.

This work is the latest installment in Plough Publishing’s The Gospel in Great Writers series, and it is a gem. Dorothy L. Sayers was one of the first women to receive a degree from Oxford. Her experience in an ad agency became a resource for a series of Lord Peter Wimsey (and Harriet Vane) detective mysteries. As a committed Christian, and friend of the Inklings, she was called upon by the BBC to speak and write about the Christian faith. She published several plays that brought the gospel accounts to life. She was an essayist, and her extended essay on The Mind of the Maker, simultaneously served as a work of Christian aesthetics, and a reflection on the Trinity. Many consider her translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy (Paradiso completed posthumously by Barbara Reynolds) to be one of the best.

In this anthology, we have material from many of her works, that introduces the reader both to the different facets of her writing and the deep theological insight to be found. The material is organized into twenty chapters, each on a particular them, and combining either her fiction or plays with essay material on the same themes. Themes range from Conscience to Covetousness to Despair and Hope to Work and finally Time and Eternity.

What struck me afresh in reading this collection was how delightfully frank and able to cut through pretense Dorothy could be–the counterpart of Harriet Vane in her detective stories.

In writing about Judgement, she notes:

“It is the inevitable consequence of man’s attempt to regulate life and society on a system that runs counter to the facts of his own nature.”

In her essay, The Dogma is the Drama, she concludes:

“Let us, in Heaven’s name, drag out the Divine Drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slip-shod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much the worse for the pious–others will pass into the Kingdom of Heaven before them.”

In her play The Man Who Would Be King, she uses informal language to describe the crucifixion of Jesus. The Bishop of Winchester protested this. Here is Dorothy’s reply:

“I’ve made all the alterations required so far, but now I’m entering a formal protest, which I have tried to make a mild one, without threatenings and slaughters. But if the contemporary world is not much moved by the execution of God it is partly because pious phrases and reverent language have made it a more dignified crime than it was. It was a dirty piece of work, tell the Bishop.”

In her essay Why Work?, she makes this trenchant observation:

“How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life?”

This work is rich in such observations and often the essay excerpts are a good reflection of the key ideas in those essays. If there is any flaw, the excerpts from the detective fiction do not sufficiently reflect these works as a whole, even if they are connected thematically to the other pieces in the chapter. Hopefully, something of the character of Lord Peter Wimsey shows through, which develops over the course of Sayers fiction. The only remedy for this is that you need to read the works in their entirety, often available in inexpensive print or electronic editions.

A bonus to this volume comes in the form of “A Panegyric for Dorothy L. Sayers” by C.S. Lewis, written following her death. I think she would have most appreciated this comment:

“There is in reality no cleavage between the detective stories and her other works. In them, as in it, she is first and foremost the craftsman, the professional. She always saw herself as one who had learned a trade, and respects it, and demands respect for it from others.”

For those who only have heard of Dorothy L. Sayers, this volume is a wonderful introduction to her broad range of writings, and her acute thinking about theology and art. For those who have read her works, it is a wonderful review that serves to connect the dots between her different genres of work. For all of us, this work gives us a chance to think along with one of the great theological minds of the twentieth century.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: Cosmology in Theological Perspective

Cosmology in theological Perspective

Cosmology in Theological Perspective, Olli-Pekka Vainio. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018.

Summary: Explores the place and significance of human beings in the cosmos, how this has been thought of through history, and how Christian theology might address contemporary questions raised about our place, the possibility of extra-terrestrial life, the size of the cosmos, drawing upon the approach of C.S. Lewis.

Anyone who has gazed up at the night sky, ancient or modern, has likely been filled with a sense of wonder, a sense of the vastness of the cosmos, and wondered about our place, and how we could possibly think ourselves of any significance before such vastness. Modern scientific discoveries of millions of galaxies, and the proposal of our universe being but one of many multiverses only multiplies the vastness. That leaves all human beings with many philosophical questions, and Christians with particular questions of how they make sense of the cosmos, the magnitude of it, and the possibilities of other life forms, and where God is in all this.

Olli-Pekka Vainio, who is working with NASA on a project on astrobiology, has thought deeply about cosmology and matters of faith and this book, drawing on the approach of C. S. Lewis. He writes of Lewis:

“In his essays, Lewis offered reasoned commentaries on our place in the cosmos that drew from the ancient Christian tradition, encountering head-on the contemporary challenges, which he often showed to be based on misunderstandings or superficial knowledge of history. He resisted the scientistic worldview as “all fact and no meaning,” that is to say, a worldview that tries to be too secure and is thereby paradoxically vacated of those things that really matter to us. By mixing elements from the contemporary and ancient cosmologies, he wished to underline the meaning that was lost, as “pure facts” had taken over the collective imagination. In a way, his science fiction was a project that tried to re-enchant the world after the disenchantment brought by scientism and crude materialism.”

He describes this approach as bringing together three elements: an understanding of history, a coherence of knowledge, and intellectual virtue. Attempts at cosmology must be understood in historical context. Coherence of knowledge for the Christian consists in the canonical witness, the ecumenical tradition, and the ecumenical consensus. Intellectual virtue “includes values like honesty, open-mindedness, critical thinking, courage, and wisdom” without which we end up “in either relativism or dogmatism.”

With this methodology in mind he begins by surveying ancient cosmologies including the Old Testament and those of Plato and Aristotle which influence the early church. He then turns to early Christian thinking, particularly that of Basil the Great and Saint Augustine, considering the philosophical and hermeneutical tools they used. He moves forward to debates surrounding the work of Galileo, Newton, and Darwin and develops observations on how to think, and not to think, in relating theology and scientific facts.

After these first three introductory chapters, he turns to contemporary questions. Chapter 4 considers the possibilities of multiple habitable planets and multiverses and how this might connect to Christian theism and proposes the interesting idea that a good Creator might create good things in abundance, or plenitude. Chapter 5 considers different understandings of the imago dei, and how that might be applied to alien life forms, artificial intelligences, and whether animals might in any sense share in the imago dei. Chapter 6 explores two possibilities: one that we are alone in the universe and two that there are other “alien” life forms. Vainio shows how Christian theism might accommodate either of these possibilities. Having considered the vast cosmos, chapter 7 asks why God did not create a human-sized cosmos and why there is so much empty space. Chapters 8 and 9 explore a number of questions about God–God’s relation to such a vast creation and where God may be found, and the question of whether the Incarnation of Christ was a unique event that might apply for other worlds, or if Christ entered other worlds in other ways.

His concluding chapter returns to C. S. Lewis, and explores how Lewis related reason and imagination in formulating his ideas about cosmology, and how this approach might be helpful in our own day. Lewis did not see these in conflict, leading to extremes either of reducing things to “all facts and no meaning” or that faith is believing what we know is not true. Rather, the cosmic significance of our faith nurtures our desire to understand the cosmos more fully, and good scientific work only deepens our wonder and awe.

The value of this work is not to enunciate inflexible dogma concerning matters of cosmology but rather to explore the questions at the boundaries of our knowledge both of science and theology and to suggest that Christian theism has the resources to address various possibilities and coherent and imaginative responses to the questions we might ask. Vainio offers us careful theological and philosophical reasoning throughout (and an extensive bibliography), that identifies the different possibilities and their strengths and weaknesses of various proposals. I appreciate the combination of careful scholarship and epistemic humility in this work that creates a space for fertile discussions between scientists and theologians working together to make sense of the cosmos.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Middle Knowledge

middle knowledge

Middle KnowledgeJohn D. Laing. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2018.

Summary: An exposition and defense of the doctrine of middle knowledge, also known as Molinism, and arguments for why this best addresses other theological issues.

God’s sovereignty and human freedom. Somehow both logic and experience witness to the truth of both and yet how the two may be understood together has been one of the toughest questions facing theologians and Christian apologists. A truly sovereign God has both the knowledge, indeed foreknowledge, and power to accomplish God’s will. If this is so, in what sense can humans be said to be free? On the other hand, humans often act in ways contrary to God’s will, sometimes in horribly evil ways that inflict great suffering on others. If God has the power to stop this, why doesn’t God? How can we say God is both good, and powerful.

One of the ways some theologians have responded to this question is to advance the idea of “middle knowledge.” The name comes from the idea that this is knowledge that is in the middle of, or between God’s natural and free knowledge. God’s natural knowledge is both necessary and independent of God’s free will, that is what God knows by his nature. God’s free knowledge has to do with his choices in creating and is contingent and dependent upon God’s free will. Middle knowledge is between these two in that it is both contingent, having to do with what God would do if various states would obtain, but also independent of God’s free will in being “pre-volitional.” What this means is that God is able to pre-know the various counterfactuals of human freedom and choose to act in creation in ways that effect his will through the actions of creatures who act freely.

This work by John D. Laing unpacks this theological approach, also called Molinism after Luis de Molina, the Jesuit theologian who first propounded these ideas, and defends it against both Calvinist and Arminian objections (which he often associates with Open Theism, an association that some may challenge). He begins with introducing different models of providence (process theology, open theism, Calvinism, theological fatalism, and middle knowlege) and the assumptions these make about God’s omnipotence and omniscience and about human freedom. He then explicates the doctrine of middle knowledge and the ideas of counterfactuals and probable worlds so critical to this approach.

He then addresses three problems that are raised with the opponents, the conditional excluded middle problem, that Molinism leads to determinism, and what Laing believes the key objection, which is the grounding objection–that there is no ground or guarantee of the truth of counterfactuals of freedom in either God or the person. In a separate chapter he also deals with the circularity objection.

Following this, Laing applies the doctrine of middle knowledge to our understanding of other Christian doctrines: divine foreknowledge and creaturely free will, predestination and salvation, including discussions of atonement and the relationship of regeneration and faith, the problem of evil, inerrancy and inspiration (particularly as this bears on the idea of verbal plenary inspiration and the freedom of the writers of scripture), and questions of science and theology including questions about God’s involvement in physical processes and how an intelligent designer might be at work through mutations and how one might account for creaturely flaws. What Laing seeks to do in each chapter is to show how middle knowledge is the best construct providing explanations of the ways of God in the life of his creatures.

Two final chapters consider the biblical support for middle knowledge over and against Open Theism and Calvinism, and the ways middle knowledge provides existentially satisfying answers to a number of aspects of Christian living: unfulfilled prophecy, petitionary prayer, evangelism, discipleship, having a God worthy of worship, dealing with end of life issues, and the end of all things.

Laing, who also wrote the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Middle Knowledge, is one of the leading proponents of this theological approach. He engages carefully with critics, notably Open Theist William Hasker. He both answers objections and advances arguments for the explanatory power of the Molinist approach, while being honest about places, like the problem of the Holocaust, where all explanations struggle. This may be one of the best single author works on Molinism, or middle knowledge apart from the writings of Molina himself. Laing does careful philosophical work in this book, so be prepared for some heavy lifting in understanding counterfactuals, possible worlds, and the like.

I’m not sure at the end of the day whether I am convinced. I’m always a bit suspicious that explanations that reconcile God’s sovereignty and human freedom give away too much of one or the other or both. Perhaps I’m a bit more comfortable leaving the apparent contradiction between these two unexplained and unreconciled. But Laing has given me a good deal to think about, particularly in his discussions of inerrancy and inspiration, and his discussion of science. I certainly understand the idea of middle knowledge and the claims of its proponents far better because of this work. Definitely worth digging into if you care about questions of human freedom and divine sovereignty.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Theologies of the American Revivalists

theologies of the american revivalists

Theologies of the American Revivalists, Robert W. Caldwell III. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: A study, not so much of the history, as the theologies underlying the different revival movements in America from 1740 to 1840.

There have been various studies of the histories of particular revival movements in American religious history. What Robert W. Caldwell offers in this work is a comparative study of the theologies of the different revivalists. Undergirding the preaching and methodologies of these revivalists lay considerable thought about the theology of the human will and the sovereignty of God, on how widely the salvation of Christ extended, on the length of the conversion process and a tension between systematic theology and plain reading of scripture.

In seven chapters, Caldwell outlines the theologies of various key figures representing different schools of thought, or religious bodies. These include:

  • Moderate evangelical revival theology. This stream of Puritan Calvinism included George Whitefield, Gilbert Tennent, and notably, Jonathan Edwards. Preaching focused on the law, bringing people under conviction of sin, pursuing “means of grace” as one sought conversion, and finally the consolation of assurance. This process was often emotionally intense and protracted.
  • Free grace revival theology. Andrew Croswell and other radical evangelicals rejected the use of “means of grace” and lengthy conversion processes. They emphasized responses of faith to the Christ who loves, and whose salvation was for the world, by “right.” Conversions were intense, certain, leaving no room for doubt, and quick.
  • Edwardsean Calvinist revival theology. Successors of Jonathan Edwards focused on Edwards idea that people have a natural ability to embrace the gospel, even if morally disinclined to do so. This had ramifications for the understanding of original sin, atonement, and, justification. Conversions continued to be lengthy events, culminating in a “disinterested” spirituality that accepted and even could worship God for his just judgment of oneself as a sinner, leading to the apprehension of God’s grace.
  • Methodist Arminian theology emphasized the love of God, the offer of salvation to all, and the freedom of the will to believe. Conversions were both emotional events and quick, with teaching that encouraged progress to Christian perfection.
  • Early American Baptists. They did not have a single revival theology but different leaders adopted one of the above approaches.
  • Taylorism, or New Haven theology. Nathaniel William Taylor further emphasized both the sinners ability to repent, and the ways in which the means of grace might eradicate selfishness in the sinner even prior to regeneration.
  • Charles Finney’s revival theology. Finney built on Taylor, emphasizing the sinner’s ability to respond to the command to repent and elaborating the means of grace systematically in what became called the “new measures.” Finney asserted that three processes were at work in the conversion process: the work of the Spirit, the work of the minister, and the work of the convert.

Caldwell also discusses two critical responses to these revivalist theologies. The first was that of the Princeton theologians Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge, who believed these revival theologies deviated from classic Calvinism in the direction of Pelagianism. They emphasized the quieter means of the influence of the Christian family. The second was the restoration movement led by Stone and Campbell that eschewed theological systems for the plain teaching of the Bible and the actions of belief, repentance, and baptism affirmed in scripture as resulting in regeneration.

I thought Caldwell’s exposition quite clear as to each of the theologies coupled the key figures, their ideas, and the theological implications of those ideas. Each chapter provides a summary of salient points that allows for good review of the chapter. I wondered about the focus on the conversion theologies associated with the revivalists. While this was a significant aspect of revivals, equally significant was the awakening of those who had already believed to spiritual vitality. Apart from the focus on Wesleyan perfection, this aspect was not addressed. Richard Lovelace’s classic Dynamics of Spiritual Life gives a much fuller account of the renewal of the church in revival.

I appreciated Caldwell’s closing comments on the importance of revival theology in the church today:

“A robust revival theology, one that intimately unites head and heart, Scripture, proclamation, and life, would certainly help galvanize preaching, capture the religious imagination of the lost, and aid in imparting a theological vision that draws sinners to life and raises up God-glorifying disciples” (p. 229).

Caldwell’s work offers a rich account of how those who have gone before us have conceived of these things, as well as pointing us to primary sources for further study. He helps us see that, beyond the emotion and the changed lives of the successive waves of revivals, there were prayerful and thoughtful human agents whose understanding of the ways of God in salvation shaped and energized their preaching and pastoral ministry.

Review: Conformed to the Image of His Son

Conformed to the Image of His Son

Conformed to the Image of His Son, Haley Goranson Jacob (Foreword by N. T. Wright). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.

Summary: An in-depth exploration of the meaning of Romans 8:29b-30, arguing that conformity to the image of the His Son has to do with our participation in the Son’s rule over creation, which is our glorification.

For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” Romans 8:29-30, English Standard Version

Generations of believers have thrilled to the language of this passage in Romans 8 and its description of the glorious destiny of believers to be conformed to the image of Christ the Son. But what does that all mean? This was the question Haley Goranson Jacob asked, and the answers she found in commentators, when they did address the language of “conformed to the image of his Son” and “glorified,” was all over the map. That question became Jacob’s dissertation study, and subsequently this book.

Jacob contends that instead of some form of spiritual, moral, physical or sacrificial conformity or a reference to a shared radiance with Christ’s glory, this verse points to our participation in the exalted calling of Christ as the last Adam and glorious king to rule with him over the creation as his vicegerents. And she argues that this is what it means for us to be glorified–to share in the Son’s glorious rule over creation.

Jacob makes a careful case for her thesis. She begins by a study of the background of the use of cognates for “glory” in the Septuagint and Apocalyptic literature, applying semiotic theory, and concludes that while there are varied usages, the most common, whether applied to humans or God is not radiance or splendor, but rather on exalted status or honor. She turns to Romans, noting echoes of Genesis 1:26-27 and Psalm 8, in the glory of the Son, the lost glory of humanity’s dominion over creation, and its restoration through the work of Christ. To strengthen the link between Christ the Son and humanity, she looks at the language of participation in Paul’s writing and contends that it is participation in the vocation of Christ, both in suffering and in exaltation over all creation.

Having laid this groundwork, she turns to Romans 8:29b-30. First she looks at the language of Sonship, and the echoes of the promised Davidic King and the last Adam. He is the firstborn, the first raised from the dead of a large family who rules over the creation he has redeemed. Believers participate as adopted sons in this rule and share in his glory–are glorified. One of the distinctives in Jacob’s argument is that she argues for the truth of this in the present and that we already participate in the Son’s work of redeeming a groaning creation, that this is the purpose Paul speaks of in Romans 8:28, that we participate in the working for good of all things.

The prospective reader should be warned that this is scholarly work, the turning of a doctoral thesis into a book, and that there is extensive use of Greek, and some Hebrew in the text. Nevertheless, Jacob’s writing is clear and her argument is set forth step by step for the reader to follow. Her intent is not mere scholarship, but scholarship in service to the church and the edification of believers.

Jacob’s point is not to deny the reality of moral transformation in Christ but to set it in the context of a larger vocation–to participate with the family of the redeemed in the rule of Christ over all creation, both now and in the new heaven and earth. This work challenges us to lift our eyes from our own spiritual progress, to the exalted Son, and the work he calls us to join him in. This is a calling to become who we were created, and then redeemed to be–image bearers who with mercy and love, care for the very good creation. The implication of this understanding extends meaning to all of our work, and has implications for the groaning creation in environmental crisis. To realize that all this comes through the foresight and wisdom of the exalted Father ought swell our hearts with renewed love and deepened affection toward the Father, Son, and Spirit whom we worship with wonder at the incredibly rich life we’ve been called to share.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.